Ward Swingle founded the Swingle Singers in Paris in the early sixties. The whole thing began as an exercise by eight free-lance singers. The group was bored by the simple fare available in the studios, for this was an era dominated by pop and early rock. One day Ward got out J.S. Bach's "Well Tempered Clavichord" and they tried them out, to find that singing them came naturally.
In 1963 they released their first recording on Phillips. By word of mouth, DJ after DJ began playing it. After climbing the charts it hit the top ten and stayed in the top 100 for more than a year and a half! That one and their following two albums won Grammies for Best Performance By A Chorus, and "Bach's Greatest Hits" also won a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Moving from the recording studio to live performance wasn't that great a stretch as the group didn't overdub. Ward Swingle, who did the arrangements, stayed close to J.S. Bach's written score, just adding drums and bass to accentuate the rhythm. Thus he developed a style which used the voice as an instrument in a fusion of jazz and classical styles. Much of the next ten years was spent touring with Les Swingles as they had created an international audience in no small part because scat turned out to be an international language.
As their music became internationally acclaimed composers began to invite the Swingle Singers to perform their works which specially fit the group. One example of that was Luciano Berio, the Italian avant-garde composer. In 1969 he invited them to perform "Sinfonia," written for eight mixed voices and orchestra. Since the recorded premiere with the New York Philharmonic, they have performed it over three hundred times.
When Ward Swingle went to England in 1973, he had an idea to form Swingles II with an expanded repertoire which would be more adequately supported by the large choral traditions of English music. He continued actively with the group until 1985 when he returned to the USA and spent ten years lecturing, doing seminars and guest conducting. The Swingle Singers have continued, with Ward as musical advisor, to this day.
No, not merely continued, they have expanded their repertoire unceasingly. Their staging is fabulous, their performances sublime. From 1999 there is a whole new group of singers who intend to build on the foundation created by all the prior Swingles and to delight their audiences, continuing one of the cleverest and most graceful singing traditions in the world.